More than Just Laughs: Building Stronger Writers Through Improv Comedy

by Lauren Esposito

If you’ve ever seen improv comedy, you’ve probably noticed something unique about this style of performing. Whether it’s an episode from the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or your favorite improvised sketch from Saturday Night Live, what you’re watching is being created on the spot. The actors aren’t working from a script. They haven’t planned anything backstage. They are essentially creating something from nothing.  

In the years I’ve watched and performed improv, I’ve learned this training doesn’t just serve improvisers. It serves writers, too. It shows them how spontaneous collaboration can jumpstart ideas, concepts, and stories. It also teaches them that failure and resiliency is a part of learning to write: Improvisers fail all the time, often in front of live audiences.  

Parents and teachers can help students develop the types of habits that hone creativity and confidence by acting as “side-coaches,” a word typically used to describe teachers of improv. Just as side-coaches work alongside actors to develop scenes, we can work alongside young writers as they develop ideas for writing, including narrative writing and other kinds of writing that pose arguments, persuade, and inform. Collaborating with our students to brainstorm, plan, and revise is not only a part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but also focuses our attention on helping children develop an awareness of what they do when they compose. Knowing what to do to get started and what to try when they hit a roadblock is as important to young writers as the final products they produce. Here are some ways parents and teachers can use improv exercises to create meaningful and focused opportunities for brainstorming.

A photograph of a table with 7 index cards strewn about, each with the word “ideas” written on top in different font styles and sizes. To the right of the table, a writer’s hands can be seen holding a pen to a blank page in a small notebook.

Image from pixabay.com; Image Credit: andrewlloydgordon

 

“Rewind”: Creativity through Collaboration

Like good improv, good writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a social activity that involves real readers and writers in exchanging, drafting, and communicating ideas. Developing writers especially benefit from talking about and generating ideas with others. These exploratory conversations have the power to awaken new discoveries and bolster students’ creative thinking.

As a teacher, I use a variety of improv exercises, many of which come from the work of pioneer improv teacher Viola Spolin, whose theater games have been adapted for actors and non-actors alike. I’ve also learned to use improv when writing from writing tutor Adar Cohen, who sees the value of improv in building students’ confidence.

One exercise in particular, called “Rewind,” allows our students to talk off the cuff about their writing ideas. It focuses their energy on being spontaneous and creative, which can be stifled by test-driven writing that emphasizes having “right” answers over experimenting with ideas. This exercise uses a draft of your child’s writing assignment as a basis for brainstorming.

It’s helpful to start by asking your child a question about his or her draft (The question can be something as straightforward as, “Why are you interested in writing about this topic?”). Once your child answers the question, say the word “Rewind,” which will prompt your child to give another response to the same question. (It’s fun to imagine that you’re using the “rewind” feature on an imaginary TV remote control.) Take some time to repeat this step so that your child has the chance to give multiple responses, which can go in any number of creative directions.  

In keeping with the spirit of improv, it’s important for young writers not to prepare answers ahead of time. Spontaneous responses can lead to new and unexpected insights. Here’s an example of two students in a writing course I taught using “Rewind” to brainstorm ideas for a letter-writing assignment. One student chose to write a letter to a local audience about problems related to noise pollution.

Matt:  How else would you start your letter?

Jin:  I could start my letter by, um, addressing the issue first.

Matt:  Rewind.

Jin:  I could start my letter by, um, giving a person’s interview, like ah, someone’s, like a quote from someone that I’ve interviewed.

Matt:  Rewind.

Jin:  I could start my letter by, um, by addressing the health issues that we have in our community.

The pressure to respond quickly in a live setting can be challenging (even for the most experienced improvisers). But it can also be empowering. It can free young writers from the bind of having to be “right,” while developing their capacity to create.  

“Yes, and” Thinking

“Yes, and” is another tool improvisers use that can help our students generate ideas and gain confidence as writers. When working with your child on a writing assignment, take some time to practice saying “yes” to new ideas. (Improvisers say “yes,” often implicitly, to each other’s ideas in order to build a scene that’s unscripted and unplanned.) This can help students avoid second-guessing, doubting, or even judging their ideas too quickly, without seeing the creative potential of a story idea, a claim, or an argument.

To play “Yes, and,” start by asking your child to write down, or verbalize in a sentence, a major thought, idea, or opinion he or she wishes to explore in a piece of writing. Then, follow up with a “Yes, and” statement that not only agrees with the original thought but adds something new.  Your goal is to allow each statement to spark a new thought without evaluating immediately how valid or relevant it is. Together, you’ll create a list of ideas, examples, rationales, and assertions that you and your child can later sort through and bring into the drafting, planning, and revising processes.  

Child:  School lunches should be improved.

Parent:  Yes, and students should have choices in the food they want to eat.

Child:  Yes, and they should be able to eat pizza all the time.

Parent:  Yes, and students love pizza.

Child:  Yes, and lunches should be fun and healthy.

Brainstorming with Confidence

Writing teacher and researcher Peter Elbow reminds us that believing in a writer’s idea or argument can be just as, if not more, valuable in opening our minds than doubting or criticizing it. When it comes to brainstorming, the above exercises extend Elbow’s advice that we “be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter” and from that stance, explore what is possible in our students’ writing.  

While improv is fun and spontaneous, it’s not the free-for-all most people imagine it to be. Good improvisers rely on habits and exercises, like “Rewind” and “Yes, and,” and trust that together new ideas will be generated and problems will be solved.  Likewise, young writers need genuine opportunities to work with others and to see the impact of brainstorming on their writing.  Memorizing a prescriptive list of dos and don’ts won’t turn them into savvy writers. Having them invent ideas using multiple techniques and with authentic audiences will.

We should invite students to learn what improvisers already know to be true—that collaboration is an effective and efficient tool for brainstorming, that taking creative risks often leads to rich rewards, and that building the confidence to create something from nothing begins with a simple phrase: “Yes, and. ”

Lauren Esposito, Ph.D., teaches writing in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse University. She has also taught writing and English to high school students, and has worked with undergraduate students studying to become English teachers. For more information on adapting improv exercises to teaching writing, please see her 2016 English Journal article “Saying ‘Yes, and’ to Collaborative Prewriting: How Improvisational Theater Ignites Creativity and Discovery in Student Writing.” She is on Twitter as @lrnesposito.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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